OPINION: A word of counsel to the Education Minister-Janet Museveni: It’s too early to declare 2020, a dead year, academically

“When you all think alike, then, it is strongly believed that nobody is thinking”, anonymous. In a bid to counter the spreading of Coronavirus in Uganda, His Excellency Yoweri Museveni issued a number of directives in his first state of the nation address about the virus on March 18, 2020.

Top on the list was the closure of all schools and/or education institutions. This means, since then, all education institutions from nursery schools to University have not been operational. To make matters worse, on March 30, 2020, the President announced a 14 days total lockdown, effect, April 1, 2020. This lockdown was still extended by 21 days, till May 5, 2020.

Even after this date, the President still extended the lockdown till May 19, 2020. It is majorly as a result of the extension of the lockdown that has caused anxiety, fear, and tension amongst pupils/students, parents/guardians, educators, and, generally, everyone else within the field of education. Indeed, many people are worried about the fate of their children/studies this academic year.

While some are of the view that schools should be re-opened with clearly defined standard operating procedures (SOPs), others are of the view that you should declare this year (2020), a dead academic year. Incidentally, I, personally, do not support either opinion, for obvious reasons. By and large, should we make a mistake of re-opening education institutions full blast this year, there is no doubt, all our efforts of mitigating against the spreading of the virus, not only amongst people within the education circles, but also amongst the citizenry, would automatically be put to waste.

In fact, this would imply that the President’s directive of closing all education institutions, effect March 20, 2020, was uncalled for.

Likewise, should we give in to the demands of those advocating for a dead year, then, there is no doubt, as a Ministry and government, at large, you should right away start planning on how to address the vacuum, that will emanate from the declaration of 2020, as a dead academic year. This implies, as a country, we shall not have any fresh graduates passed out by our universities and institutions of higher learning.

Similarly, universities and all institutions of higher learning will remain closed to all new entrants, commonly described as “freshers”. Obviously, all continuing students will have to stay put, a clear indication that the vacuum will have to spill over in the years that follow. Primary schools will have to continue with their current pupils in Primary One, in the year, 2021.

Needless to emphasize the fact the rest of the pupils would have, already, remained put. The backward linkage for secondary schools, for both Senior One and Five, will equally not be enabled, since they (secondary schools), would have no fall back position. The number of school dropouts, we shall register as a country, should we declare 2020, a dead academic year, will, obviously, be second to none, since 1962.

This is because with the adverse effects of the virus, especially, on the economic side, many parents will not be position to take back their children to school. Girls, especially in the rural areas will become victims of circumstances, and as a result, many will become pregnant, while others will join the marriage sector, at a tender age.

Generally, I strongly believe the side effects of declaring 2020, a dead academic year, outweigh the positive effects, of devising all possible means to see to it that, despite the inconvenience brought about by Coronavirus, the education sector, remains afloat.

This is what I believe should be done. First, let us first plan for P.7, S.4, and S.6 students, since these form the foundation of the next academic level. Honestly speaking, the P.7 pupils have more than enough work from which we can reliable, valid, and authentic assessment tasks for them.

This is a crisis we are managing. I strongly believe the work these pupils have covered right from P.1 to P.6, is adequate for them to be assessed, other than making them lose a complete year, simply because they have not covered “most” of the P.7 work. If we cannot assess these pupils using the six years’ work, even at a time when we are addressing a crisis, this automatically means our education system still has a huge challenge, that needs to be attended to, soonest.

Arguably, pumping these children with new information under the guise of covering P.7 work is, instead causing more harm than good. If this virus has stressed, confused, and disorganized adults, including Internationally recognized leaders, what makes us believe that these youngsters are super-natural? These are people already worried about their studies, worried about their parents/guardians losing employment, worried about the next meal, worried about the endless bickering, quarrelling, and fighting, going on at home, between mummy and daddy, etc.

So, do we expect them to attend to their studies with a focused mind? Reading goes far beyond looking into the book and/or any other reading material at someone’s disposal. If someone is to read and grasp what they are reading, then, they must do so, with a sober mind. Truth be told, what most of these pupils are doing is simply looking into their books, and not reading.

We all know how children at this stage love the red ink in their books; surely, do you think a child who has attempted tens and tens of English Language, Science, or Mathematics exercises exclusive of any red tick/cross in their book, still has Interest in what they are doing? I do not think if a child does not cover P.7, more so, at such a critical moment, they can fail to understand the content of the next class/level.

There are several subjects at secondary school level which do not have a connection with primary school education, but, it is on record that students have taken them on, and excelled at them. For this reason, instead of pumping these children with new work, which might be explained to them, or not, let us assess them using the work they have already. It is not by Act of Parliament, that Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE), should be done in November, of every year.

I am of the view that P.7 pupils report back to school, if possible in July, and occupy the school, solely, following the SOPs issued by the President and/or the Ministry of Health. In fact, in this case, the Health Ministry, might even be required to issue special SOPs; for instance, creation of “homes”, say of ten-ten, within school, under the guardianship of a teacher, and these children should not be allowed to mix up, whatsoever, while at school. Dormitories should all be decongested; there should be at least a radius of three (3) metres between deckers in all directions. All hard surfaces within the school should be disinfected, not less than three (3) times a day.

Teachers should shift from their homes and sleep with the children in the dormitories, for easy management. Masks should be worn while on the school compound, until the Health Ministry, dictates otherwise. A special arrangement for pupils in day schools can be made for them to reside at school. This means, for schools which are purely day, we might have to ignore the beds, and instead settle for only the beddings. This way, the back and forth, movement of children, which might even pave way to the spreading of the virus, would have been eliminated. Of course, if this is to be done, parents must accept the fact that their children shall be temporarily inconvenienced. If public transport is to still remain closed, the President could as well lift the ban, for say, three days, to simply allow parents return back their children to school. Definitely, the SOPs, should still be adhered to, to the dot.

In fact, this implies P.7 candidates can sit for their P.L.E., even as early as September. That is, if they go back to school in July, teachers can use July and August, to prepare them, and in the first week of September they sit for their final exams. If they report back to school in September, they can still be set for their final exams in the first week of November, provided emphasis is placed on assessing them based on the coverage they already have for the six years, they have been in primary school. As earlier noted, this coverage is sufficient for the examining body (UNEB) to design standard and authentic examinations for these pupils. While at school, pupils should be taught in groups not exceeding 30 members, per room

This means, a P.7 class of 180 pupils, should be broken down into six streams. Within each stream, six (6) teachers should be attending to the same topic, at a particular time. All teachers and the rest of the core staff members should camp at school. The health team, specifically, those in charge of dealing with the virus should visit these schools on a daily basis. Children in schools found in areas adversely affected by the floods can be relocated. Initially, I believed S.4 and S.6 are the most essential classes at secondary school level.

However, Mwebe James Kizza, an S.3 student of King’s College, Buddo, holds a contrary opinion. According to Mwebe, S.1 and S.5 are the most crucial classes at the secondary school level, since by the time schools were closed, they had hardly covered anything, in as far as the curriculum is concerned. He, therefore, advises that, to maintain the SOPs given by the Health Ministry, these can report back to school, in July, purposely to obtain organized notes/work from their teachers.

“Teachers should be ready with all the relevant work in print form, rather spending time dictating notes for the students”, says Mwebe. When asked about what rural schools that might not afford the facility should do, Mwebe is reminisces that, in every community, there is a middle-class school, implying that rural schools can always turn to the middle-class schools within their communities, for the necessary assistance. “This should be the beginning for schools to end the unnecessary competition, for education, is not a battle field. The ongoing competition within the education sector, spearheaded by the private schools, is totally uncalled for.

Time has come for schools to start looking at each other, as partners in development, rather than competitors”, Mwebe explains. Mwebe argues that the S.1 and S.5 students should report back to school, purposely to obtain organized notes from their teachers, and he maintains that, in order for them to pave way for the S.4 and S.6 students, they (S.1s and S.5s), should be at school for only two months (July and August). However, he insists that this can only be possible if teachers are going to issue students with type set notes, or notes in soft copy form. He says that, since the S.1 and S.5 students were new in their classes, teachers, together with government are simply wasting their time and resources, to send these people work via the different social medium platforms, notably WhatsApp. “How do you send work to a person who is joining a new level of education, altogether, and they are totally green, about the content of that particular level?” Mwebe, asked. He says governmemt should instead divert these resources to helping rural schools, for instance, with type- setting work for their students.

Mwebe also asserts that this arrangement can only yield the desired results, only when the Ministry introduces the S.1s to the old curriculum, and not the new curriculum. “If the Ministry insists on the new curriculum, even after the damage caused by this virus, then, it is obvious, 2020, will be a dead year for the S.1 students”, says Mwebe. He says the S.4 and S.6 students can report to school in September, after the departure of the S.1 and S.5 students. The S.4s should study for only two months, September and October, and embark on their exams in November. These can stretch till December.

Likewise, the S.6 students can study from September to December, and bounce back in January, immediately after elections (assuming they are not postponed), study for two extra months-February and March, and then sit for their final exams in April. Still they will join University and/or higher learning institutions in August, latest September. This way, the academic year, 2020, wouldn’t have been lost. This means, instead of declaring it a dead academic year, we can simply stretch it to 2021.

Still to catch up with the coverage, the Senior Five (S.5) students can sit for their exams in March/April, 2022, and still join University and higher institutions of learning, the same year. This means, UNEB will be required to increase the number of examiners, at least, two-fold, to speed up the marking exercise. Recall that students who sat for their S.6 exams in November/December, 1998, were the pioneers of doing exams in November/December, after the Education Ministry had moved away from the assessment period of March/April, for the S.6 students. If I am not mistaken, these students only had two terms in Senior Five, since their academic year, began in June, 1997.

This, therefore, implies, even the current S.5 students, if well-attended to, can still catch up, and even sit for their final exams in November, 2021, as scheduled. Time is ripe for schools, especially those that are urban-based to start planning for technological innovation and incremental change. The chalk and talk method of teaching, should instead be replaced with the projector and class presentation teaching method. This means, blackboards should be replaced with white boards. Government should ensure that at least, by 2026, this method of teaching has been adopted by all schools, countrywide. This means, solar energy should be made available to those schools that do not have access to hydro electricity.

Time has come for schools/teachers to make good use of the different social medium platforms. Operating officially known Facebook pages to the general public, is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. This will pave way to live streaming, and as a result, e-learning, will be enabled. Educators should start uploading their work on YouTube, just like journalists and other professionals do. The habit of students taking down identical notes should stop. Teachers should instead guide learners on how to take down organized notes. Learners need to, for instance, be taught how to use the Internet for learning purposes.

It is high time we moved back to the use of the textbook, as the core teaching aid, and not the pamphlet. Students should not go to the school library to read the notes already in their notebooks, but rather, the library should be used majorly as a resource centre, where learning, re-learning, and unlearning take place. Obviously, this can only happen, if the library is fully stocked with authentic textbooks, and not pamphlets and handouts. Emphasis should be placed on teaching, than assessment, as is the case, today. The classroom should be best seen as a clashroom, if the teaching-learning process, is to go on, as expected. In other words, the teacher-student method of teaching should take centre stage, at all levels of study. In this information era, teachers/educators, regardless of their qualifications, experience, expertize, and level of instruction, can never be considered as the sole custodians of knowledge.

Parents are strongly encouraged to open up email addresses for their children. Of course, this applies to those who have access to such facilities. Instead of sending work via WhatsApp, schools should resort to availing students with work using their email addresses. While sending the work, the parents’/guardians’ email address, should equally be copied in. The computer laboratory should not only be a reserve for students studying Information Communications Techology (ICT).

All students should be allowed room to freely access the computer lab, whenever they want to get access to knowledge. If the measures laid down are adhered to, then, there is no doubt, the S.2 and S.3 students can be effectively next year (2021), in the next classes, even if they remained home throughout the year. However, if we are to still go by the traditional teaching style, then, there is no doubt, 2020, for these two classes must be declared as a dead academic year. Nursery school going children should not go back to school, till next year, no matter. These kids are very fragile, and, truth is, they need to be protected, against the virus, in whichever way. In fact, the Education Ministry should use this time to streamline nursery education.

Do we to keep children for three years in nursery? Can’t the Ministry dictate the school going age for nursery children, instead of parents taking their children to school at the age of two (2)? For instance, I strongly believe if children joined nursery at the age of four (4), then, it would imply that they can spend two (2) years in nursery.

I strongly believe, even if children in nursery school, including their counterparts in P.1 to P.6 stayed home, they can be effectively managed next year in the next classes. For University and higher institutions of learning, the Ministry should first focus at the students in the final year, and perhaps the freshers.

By the time education institutions were closed, majority of the students in their final year, were only left with barely a month to sit for their final exams. So, these can go back to their centres of study, to specifically, do examinations. If these went back, say, in July, they can, within one month, complete their exams, and pave way for the freshers in August. The continuing students can resume school in September, of course, with strict adherence to the SOPs in place. They can start off with their previous semester’s exams, prior to embarking on the new academic year’s work. The backlog of the previous year, can be incorporated into that of the new academic year.

Thankfully, Makerere University is now a testing centre for the virus. This means, with support from government, it can be in position to test all its staff and students, ahead of re-opening. Other universities, like Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), should fall suit. Government should then plan to lift the lockdown for University dons and instructors of the various higher institutions of learning, so that they can start preparing examinations for the final year students. Universities that normally pass out students in December and January, can organize their graduations, say, in March and April, 2021, respectively.

Government should, however, not make any mistake of allowing back those students who moved back to their mother countries, after the Presidential directive of closing education institutions, whatsoever. These should only be allowed back in Uganda, next year, unless otherwise. By so doing, the risk of importing the virus, would be greatly minimized. Schools attending to children with special needs, specifically those in P.7, S.4, and S.6 should be allowed to operate.

The self-study materials being prepared by NCDC for these children, in the absence of their teachers, are worthless. Like the name suggests, “special needs education”, implying that these children need particular teachers to attend to them. Short of that, government should not waste the meagre resources available, on preparing learning materials for special needs children.

If the SOPs put in place by the Health Ministry, more so, wearing of the mask, while away from home, then, even the P.7 pupils in day schools, can commute from home. Rather than writing off this academic year, I strongly believe, it would more palatable, if all educators scratched their heads and came up with ideas, from which the Minister and her team can choose, in an effort to avoid losing the entire year. “This is the time where you as our teachers should apply the creativity that you always tell us about, while at school”, said Mwebe. We should now start to understand how the creative process works, at the individual level. Notice that the brain has two sides that operate in quite different ways. The left side of the brain, performs rational, logical functions.

The right side operates intuitive and irrational thinking modes. At this point in time, the Education Ministry, requires, absolutely, “left-brain thinkers”, if it is to complete the puzzle in the time period specified. I, therefore, wish to call upon the Minister, to look out for more of these individuals, before giving in to those advocating for a dead academic year. It should be emphasized that even the measures cited above, will be determined by the way the populace adheres to the set SOPs by the Health Ministry, and above all, by the speed at which the virus spreads.

Definitely, if the virus penetrates our communities, at a sky-rocket speed (God forbid), the Education Ministry, shall have no option, but to declare 2020, a dead academic year.

Jonathan Kivumbi, Educationist, 0770880185/0702303190

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